Chris Harman


The Missing Key

(December 1984)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 71, December 1984, pp. 20–22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

CHRIS HARMAN reviews a new book on Ireland

Communism is Modern Ireland: the pursuit of the Workers’ Republic since 1919
Mike Milotte
Gill and Macmillan £25 (available through the Bookmarx Club for £8.95)

THE HISTORY of modern Ireland presents two great contradictions. It was one of the first countries to experience a massive bourgeois nationalist revolt, in 1798, long before countries like Germany or Italy, let alone China and India. Yet while most of these late comers have achieved national unity and independence, Ireland is still split in two. Its six north eastern counties remain as Britain’s last major colony, and its political life is very much dominated by the unresolved business of the era of the French revolution.

It was shaken in the first half of the twentieth century by upsurges of working class struggle more powerful and radical than those in the cities of Britain – the great strikes in Belfast in 1907 and 1919, the Dublin lock-out of 1913, the Belfast unemployed agitation of 1932 and the wartime strikes in defence of union rights in that city in 1942 and 1944. Yet the socialist or Labour Parties have been weaker, in both the North and the South, than anywhere else in Europe.

Mike Milotte sees these two contradictions as being intimately connected.

His central contention is that of James Connolly in Labour in Irish History and that of Leon Trotsky in his theory of permanent revolution. The local bourgeoisie was too weak and too bound by ties to British capitalism ever to be able to lead the sort of uncompromising struggle needed to bring national unity and independence. The national question could never be fully resolved except by independent working class activity.

Indeed, he sees the general argument about permanent revolution as having special strength in the case of Ireland.

Modern large scale industry was for a very long time virtually confined to the area around Belfast where the overwhelming majority of the workforce were from Protestant backgrounds. There was (and still is) systematic discrimination when it came to getting jobs, particularly skilled jobs. The large engineering and shipbuilding plants of the area always employed about nine Protestants to every one Catholic (in an island where only a quarter of the population were Protestant) and unemployment in the area was always about twice as high among Catholics as Protestants.

All this made it possible for these workers to be bound to a political machine controlled by Anglo-Irish landed and industrial interests who opposed the national movement. The Protestant workers feared any change which would open them up to the possibility of being ruled by a government which might destroy or even reverse the pattern of discrimination. The result was that the section of the bourgeoisie most adamantly opposed to national independence and unity had a very powerful weapon at its disposal.

It was this binding of Protestant workers to Orangeism that above all enabled the British to establish and maintain the Northern Ireland statelet when they were driven out of the rest of Ireland in 1921.

Once partition had taken place, the dream of the Southern middle class of building a stable modern state was thwarted. The South simply did not have the resources to achieve a sustained independent momentum of industrialisation. Modern industry did not really begin to develop until 40 years after independence – and then it was on the basis of deals with foreign capital, not on the basis of any self-contained national capitalism.

BUT IT was not only the national movement that was broken by partition. So was the socialist movement. Until the First World War it was possible for socialists to believe that the sectarian divide in the working class of the Belfast area would simply break down in the course of quite low key working class struggles.

After all, this was what happened in many parts of Britain (Lancashire, Merseyside, Glasgow and Edinburgh, the North-East). The working class in these places were divided very much along sectarian lines right up until the first decade of the twentieth century. This was a result of old established, mainly Protestant, workers turning against more recent Irish immigrants. Yet these divisions were broken down relatively easily in the period before and after World War One by the spread of mass trade unionism on the one hand and the very tame propaganda of the Independent Labour Party on the other (with its plea for ‘Liberal, Tory and Socialist workers’ to forget political differences’ and unite to elect Labour representatives who were ‘independent’ of the existing parties).

Both Jim Larkin and James Connolly seem to have assumed such a development as the Bill to establish a 32 county home rule parliament went through the British House of Commons in 1912. The mainly Protestant members of the Belfast trade unions would, they felt, have no choice but to unite with Catholic trade unionists elsewhere in the country to press their common interests.

Such hopes were wrecked once the island was split into two states. As Connolly had predicted, partition meant ‘a carnival of reaction, North and South’.

The working class in the North-East – at least half the national total – was bound even more tightly than before to Orangeism. Sectarianism did not undergo a long term decline in Belfast as it did in, say, Liverpool and Glasgow. There were periods in which reformist political organisations (especially the Northern Ireland Labour Party) seemed to make good progress, collecting up to a third of the vote. But they were smashed once the issue of the network of institutions that provided Protestant workers with advantages over Catholics was raised. This was true whether the question was pushed to the fore by Unionist politicians seeking to reassert their hold (as in the mid-1930s) or by Catholics demanding equal rights (as in the late 1960s).

Reformism in the North broke again and again on the rock of the Northern state: it was trying to get reforms through a state which rested on institutionalised division within the working class.

Reformism in the South was just as weak. It was possible to build quite powerful unions in Dublin and a few other towns: the heritage of 1913 was a very powerful tendency towards syndicalism. But Southern capitalism was too weak to be able to afford much in the way of state-distributed reforms.

The Southern Labour Party would grow for a period by campaigning for reforms, and then would very quickly lose support by entering coalition governments which could not deliver even the most meagre of gains for workers or small farmers.

The experience of betrayal at the hands of Labour ministers did not even lead, in the main, to the sort of left Labourism we know in Britain.

Instead, the most discontented workers, unemployed and poor farmers, turned from the idea of reforms through the state to Republican ideas of one sort or another. The main beneficiary of Labour’s failure was the party of native Irish capitalism, Fianna Fail, with its claim to stand for fulfilment of national demands because its historic leader, De Valera, refused to endorse the treaty in 1921 and stood up the British in the ‘economic war’ of the 1930s.

The other beneficiaries were the hardline Republicans who ascribed the failure of either Labour or Fianna Fail to improve people’s conditions to the continuing occupation of part of the island by Britain.

Reaction in the North and reaction in the South did indeed feed off each other. Without the weight which the workers of the North would have provided, resistance by the left in the South to clerical domination of the state was severely, often fatally weakened. Socialists were literally forced to keep quiet or even to flee abroad by church-inspired persecution. And clerical domination of the South reinforced all the prejudices of Northern Protestant workers.

MIKE MILOTTE argues that there was (and is) a way out of this double impasse. It lay in building an alternative to both working class reformist politics and non-working class republican politics: in revolutionary socialist working class politics.

Only by fighting both the Southern and the Northern states can you present an alternative that appeals to Protestant as well as Catholic workers, which overcomes the limitations both of reformism and Republicanism.

The book contains a wealth of detail, both about working class struggles and about the role of Communists in them, that no review can do justice to. Where else can you read about the coal and rail strikes in the 26 counties in the 1930s, the Belfast unemployed riots of 1932, the wartime strikes in the North’s engineering factories and shipyards, the unemployed agitation in Dublin in the mid-1950s, the Republican Congress movement of the early 1930s and the rise of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s?

What emerges again and again from this detail is the way people, North and South of the border, have been attracted towards ideas they see as revolutionary socialist.

Every time the Republican movement faced a major crisis, some of its members moved seriously to the left: this was true as it faced defeat in the civil war in 1923, it was true after De Valera split from it in the years 1928–32, and it was true yet again after the failure of the guerrilla raids across the border in the 1950s.

Every time there was a real upsurge of working class struggle individual worker militants were won to a politics which seemed to go beyond the pale reformism of the Northern and Southern Labour parties – even though this meant Northern Protestants breaking with Orangeism and the politics of partition.

But Mike’s history is also the history of the failure of these individuals to congeal into a revolutionary workers’ party that could provide continuing leadership to much wider layers of the class.

In part the failure came from objective circumstances: the all too real pressures of unemployment and enforced emigration on militants, the way the Church put the ideological boot in every time there was a downturn in struggle, even the simple difficulty of finding the resources to get out a regular paper in a small country with an impoverished working class.

In part the failure came from the sheer complexity of the strategic and tactical issues facing even the smallest revolutionary organisation in Ireland: how do you relate both to Republican activists who are involved in military confrontation with the state but do not understand anything about trade unionism and to trade union activists who have not yet fully broken with a reformism that identifies with the state?

How do you operate (indeed, at some points, even stay alive) in the sectarian, Orange working class communities in the North without backtracking on the fight against the Orange state?

How, in practice, do you push independent working class struggles in the South and the Catholic ghettoes of the North, without abstaining from the struggle Republicans are waging against the state – especially at times when the workers’ struggle is at a low ebb and the military struggle seems all important?

These were very real problems, Mike shows, for the young Communist Party led by Roddy Connolly in the early 1920s, and they have been just as big a problem for revolutionaries in the last 16 years.

However, the decisive element in the failure Mike sees as lying in neither of these things, but in the impact of the Stalinism in completely distorting any discussion on strategy and tactics.

Even as early as the mid-1920s the Communist International ordered the Communist Party of Ireland to dissolve itself into an apparently larger organisation led by Jim Larkin – even though this seems to have been little more than a product of Larkin’s imagination, with no branches, no meetings, no programme and no existence except for the purposes of parliamentary elections.

In the early 1930s the line from Moscow was to castigate all and sundry as ‘social fascists’ and ‘bourgeois reactionaries’ – and that the Communists (then called the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups) duly did, making it all but impossible for them to build any sustained base out of the very hard and heroic work they did around particular struggles.

The line changed in the mid 1930s and the Communists quickly jumped to the opposite extreme, seeking popular fronts with Fianna Fail in the South (although by then it was attacking both the working class and the Republicans) and with ‘progressive unionists’ in the North. This attempt to placate at the same time people who were verbally anti-partitionist in the South and ardent supporters of partition in the North culminated in two separate parties, divided by the border.

Mike’s book ends by looking at the last ten years. This is the most disappointing part of it: because its subject matter is ‘official’ Communism it does not seriously look at what genuine revolutionary socialists have done or could have done. So although it tells you some interesting things about the Stalinist influenced Workers’ Party, it tells you less about those who are the real heirs of the people who formed the first Communist Party in 1921.

All you get are hints about what could be said. Because the new revolutionaries were not ruined by Stalinist conceptions, they could take the initiative in pushing forward the struggle of the Northern Catholics in 1968-69. But their youth and lack of theoretical clarity meant they did not have any real inkling of what that struggle would unleash.

Above all they did not have even the embryo of a party that would enable them to fight for a socialist programme within the civil rights movement and to make sense of that programme to at least some of the more advanced trade unionists among the Protestant workers.

The result was that they were squeezed out of the leadership of the movement in the Catholic ghettoes by the Provos and walled off by Loyalist thugs from even communicating with Protestant workers.

WE HAVE been through more than a decade in which the only place in which revolutionary socialists could base themselves on real working class struggle has been in the South. But here too there have been very great difficulties.

The 1970s were in some ways the most successful period in the history of the Southern bourgeoisie. Successful manipulation of Common Market mechanisms attracted multinational capital, enabling a growth of industry, a rationalisation of agriculture, an improvement in workers’ and small farmers’ living standards, and for the first time in a century and a half, a higher level of re-immigration than of emigration.

For a period many of the features that had made the state so potentially unstable in the past were banished. It was as if the Irish bourgeoisie had been able to achieve its historic dream of nationhood, but within the cramped confines of the 26 counties. And the sense of security this gave to the middle classes translated itself into a certain placidity in the working class. Significantly, the rising political organisation within the working class in the late 1970s was the Workers’ Party (the one time official Sinn Fein) with its gospel of reforms, collaboration with state and foreign capital to build up the national economy, and acceptance of the border.

Meanwhile, revolutionary socialists who had once been able to unleash movements which shook the Northern state to its foundations, found themselves consigned to the margins of political life.

Today there are some indications that the situation is once again changing. The Southern state’s debts are beginning to catch up with it, inflation is damaging workers’ living standards, unemployment is creating deep pools of discontent and rising emigration is once more eroding the general sense of stability. One symptom of this is an increase in Southern working class support for the Proves; another is an increase in the level of police repression.

One of the things which comes through very clearly in Mike Milotte’s book is the way small groups of socialists have in the past moved very quickly from being marginal to being at the centre of great struggles. The difficulty, of course, is that you can only prepare for the moment when such quick movement is possible by the long, slow, arduous work of building at least the beginnings of a coherent organisation. That is the task our comrades in the Socialist Workers’ Movement in Ireland have set themselves. If they are successful, they will have helped to provide the missing key to the Irish situation.

Last updated on 8 October 2019